U.S. Energy Problems

Proposed Nuclear Projects Put Coastal Georgia At Additional Risk
In these times of rising energy costs, it may seem difficult to argue against nuclear power as a supposedly inexpensive, 'clean' energy alternative. Like many claims about technological solutions, closer examination of nuclear energy leads to far different conclusions than what is suggested by conventional wisdom.

Nuclear fuels and related radioactive materials are extremely dangerous if leaked into the environment, even in minuscule amounts especially because they last so long. Forms of uranium that are most commonly used as fuel in power production have a life of many hundreds of years. Plutonium, another radioactive material proposed to be used as nuclear plant fuel, remains hazardous for many times longer than uranium - literally thousands of years. All radioactive materials threaten the health of humans and wildlife that are exposed to them, producing symptoms (depending on dosage and duration of exposure) ranging from severe and persistent nausea to nervous system dysfunction, cancer, reproductive abnormalities, birth defects, and death.

Most troubling, because of their longevity, these materials can build up in the systems of animals, plants, and habitats (water bodies and land areas). At exceptionally low levels, a single dose may not produce any significant adverse health risks, but continued or accumulating exposure can be deadly. Because these materials can be moved by various atmospheric dynamics (wind, evaporation, rain) and can wash off land areas (where they may be first deposited) into rivers and ground water, radioactive substances travel great distances. While risks are arguably greater in close proximity to the point of hazardous release, dispersion of radioactive materials through air and water can introduce threats downwind and downstream for thousands of miles.

Migratory animals may then be repeatedly exposed even though they move well beyond the location of initial release of radioactive materials. Combined with other forms of biological stress imposed by chemical pollutants in air and water, radioactive materials also may weaken immune systems and digestive functions of wildlife and humans inhabiting contaminated areas, allowing opportunistic micro-organisms to infect and kill their hosts. The cumulative and interactive effects of radioactive pollutants in combination with conventional chemical contaminants are virtually never considered in evaluating any single type of process using these hazardous materials. Nor are repeated exposures typically analyzed, even though they are a significant possibility as radioactive contaminants accumulate in the environment and food web over sustained periods. Such outcomes may be difficult to predict, but that does not justify them being ignored or trivialized through simplistic assumptions.

"Such outcomes may be difficult to predict, but that does not justify them being ignored or trivialized through simplistic assumptions."

There are two reasons why this issue should be of particular interest to the people of coastal Georgia. First is the relicensing of Plant Hatch in Baxley near the Altamaha River. Although there has never been a terrible catastrophe at this facility, the aging condition and defective design of Plant Hatch make it ripe for a serious incident of contamination. Moreover, in its next phase of operation, untested outdoor storage of radioactive materials will take place within close proximity to the waters of the Altamaha, Georgiašs largest and most naturally productive river.

Even more threatening is a proposal at the Savannah River Site near Augusta, now under review, for processing plutonium from decommissioned nuclear bomb warheads into fuel to be used at nuclear power plants in other locations. The SRS site is already known to be dangerously contaminated, with over 50 unlined 'seepage ponds' believed to be releasing radioactive contaminants into the area's groundwater systems. Introducing the proposal for plutonium processing greatly adds to SRS's prospective threats to human health and the environment.

Since plutonium is a more persistent form of radioactivity, and arguably among the most toxic substances known, it represents an even greater threat than 'conventional' uranium fuel. A single incident, whether caused by human operating error, an engineering or processing failure, natural catastrophe (flood, earthquake, hurricane, etc.), or act of terrorism, could produce far-reaching health hazards for many generations, and, depending on amounts released, essentially shut down the most contaminated ecosystems. Even several seemingly small leakages or airborne releases could combine, perhaps over many decades, to generate severe risks to public health and natural resources.

Considering the huge potential costs of these risks, no matter how improbable a contaminating event may be, and the enormous period of time over which these radioactive materials would remain hazardous once accidentally released, it is highly doubtful that nuclear power or fuel processing is truly practical. Efforts to demonstrate the acceptability of this form of energy production are, in effect, attempts to seize short-term benefits at serious long-term risk to human health and critically important environmental balance.

"In a single year, using existing technology, wind-driven generators can be brought online in this country, producing much safer, cleaner, and far more efficient power than any nuclear or fossil fuel power plant."

Perhaps the public may seem to gain in the short-term from energy produced, but clearly the most notable benefits would be in the form of private profits made by energy-producers. Surely there are safer ways to generate electricity at a profit, and also to improve energy conservation, without severely jeopardizing the public. Improving the efficiency of lighting, heating and cooling equipment, appliances, and various industrial processes, as well as making further headway in solar, wind, tidal, and hydrogen-cell technologies are the most obvious examples. Despite political disputes over supporting new forms of power generation, in the last 50 years more than a trillion dollars has been sunk into developing nuclear power, which provides only 20% of electrical generation in the U.S.

It is noteworthy that in Germany, during last year alone, enough wind-power generators were installed to produce more electricity than any nuclear power plant in the U.S. Even if a proposed nuclear plant were shown to be safe and efficient (an unprecedented feat), it would take five years to become operational. In a single year, using existing technology, wind-driven generators can be brought online in this country, producing much safer, cleaner, and far more efficient power than any nuclear or fossil fuel power plant. Experts expect that within the next five years, solar-power technology will be economically competitive with all conventional sources of power, and of course far less costly in terms of environmental risks. Yet ironically, the Bush administration is proposing to cut federal funding for related research by more than 40%, thereby sustaining our reliance on fossil fuels and, depending on decisions still being debated, still more foolhardy investment in nuclear power.

On the cost side of nuclear power generation and fuel processing, it is likely that communities whose health or business and employment interests are endangered by radioactive contamination would incur the most substantial burden. These costs have serious implications for coastal Georgia, where at least a fifth of our economy and 40,000 jobs are derived from natural resources. Over the operational life of facilities using nuclear materials, these costs could be cumulatively immense, unless safeguards were unfailingly (and uniquely) ideal in every respect.

Impartial assessment of technology and human nature does not substantiate belief in the flawless design and operation of such facilities. Nuclear energy is perhaps our most dangerous application of blind faith as a tool of public policy. Misleading economic and environmental assessments that portray nuclear power as practical rest upon willfully naive assumptions that are nothing short of science fiction. We accept such fantasies at our own risk and, worse, at the peril of future generations.

-- David Kyler, Executive Director
Center for a Sustainable Coast
Saint Simons Island, Georgia

"Nuclear energy is perhaps our most dangerous application of blind faith as a tool of public policy."

Public View of Solutions to U.S. Energy Problems*

A USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll, conducted May 7-9, 2001, asked the public what measures should be taken to respond to the nation's energy problems. These results were published in USA Today on May 14, 2001.

* The results from a national telephone survey of 1,005 adults have a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Solution Support Oppose
Investments in new sources of energy such as solar, wind and fuel cell 91% 6%
Mandating more energy-efficient appliances such as air conditioners, clothes driers, and water heaters
87% 12%
Mandating more energy-efficient new buildings
86% 12%
Mandating more energy-efficient cars
85% 14%
Investing in new power generating plants
83% 13%
Fostering a government partnership with the auto industry to produce more energy-efficient cars
76% 22%
Investing in more electricity-transmission lines
69% 23%
Investing in more natural gas pipelines
64% 29%
Drilling for natural gas on federal lands
63% 33%
Increasing the use of nuclear power as a major source of electricity
48% 44%
Opening the Alaskan Arctic Wildlife Refuge for oil exploration
38% 57%
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